Confronting “Bad Journalism” in an Era of “Bad Teachers”

A couple of weeks ago, I posted Addressing Teacher Quality Post-NCLB in order to examine the impact of ESSA on the growing “bad teachers” narrative found in political and media commentary on the state of education in the U.S.

My speculations have now been given credence, notably Stephen Sawchuk’s 50 Years of Research Show Good Teaching Matters. Now What? at his Teacher’s Beat blog for Education Week.

Sawchuk’s post confirmed for me that the “bad teachers” drumbeat will continue so I posted a comment, one that expressed my frustration and linked to my post above:

Please let’s stop the bad journalism on teacher quality.

https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2016/01/21/addressing-teacher-quality-post-nclb/

Please let’s stop treating Education Next as a credible publication.

First, we must note that the impact of teacher quality is dwarfed by out-of-school factors (http://www.shankerinstitute.org/blog/teachers-matter-so-do-words):

“But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).”

However, that assessment is relative conservative when compared to Experiences of poverty and educational disadvantage by Donald Hirsch (JRF, 2007) (https://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/default/files/jrf/migrated/files/2123.pdf):

“Just 14 per cent of variation in individuals’ performance is accounted for by school quality. Most variation is explained by other factors, underlining the need to look at the range of children’s experiences, inside and outside school, when seeking to raise achievement.”

Sawchuk himself replied:

This is the kind of comment that makes me crazy. I very explicitly wrote that of the IN-SCHOOL FACTORS affecting achievement, teacher quality seems to matter most. Both Coleman in his study, and Goldhaber in other publications (and me in my own reporting elsewhere) have noted that out-of-school factors account for more of the overall variance in scores. You prepare teachers, Paul — so it seems really strange to argue that we shouldn’t care about what our teachers can and do do to affect learning.

And this prompted two more comments from me:

You are aware of the horribly skewed public and political view of teacher quality, and the brief nod to “in-school” does not identify how small teacher quality is related to measurable student outcomes (less than unexplained/error).

But please identify where I have in my post or any of my work ever taken this position: “so it seems really strange to argue that we shouldn’t care about what our teachers can and do do to affect learning.”

Erodes your credibility further, after treating Education Next as credible, to discredit me with a false characterization of my position.

And (which directly quotes from my own blog calling for addressing teacher quality with vulnerable students):

From my blog post linked (to refute your mischaracterization):

So the caveat for focusing on teacher quality must include that as long as we use measurable data for determining student achievement and teacher quality, failing to address out-of-school factors likely guarantees we’ll see little change in measures such as test scores.

Nonetheless, we must address teacher experience and qualifications/expertise at high-poverty, majority-minority schools; however, without social reform that alleviates the burdens of poverty on the lives of students and their families, we are unlikely to see the sorts of changes in data that would justify any in-school only reforms.

Also, the teacher quality debate often fails to make clear at the outset just how we are designating “good” or “bad” teachers (as well as “good” and “bad” schools). We must make sure that we are not using labels of quality as markers for those out-of-school factors. In other words, we tend to say schools and teachers are “good” when the student population is affluent, and both are “bad” when the student population is high poverty.

All of which resulted in Sawchuk adding:

And moreover, I encourage you try to engage constructively on the blog, rather than beginning with personal attacks.

Here, although Sawchuk has posted again, addressing how to couch teacher impact as an in-school factor, I want to highlight what I think is a very important distinction, one at the root of bad education journalism.

First, I believe Sawchuk is in fact a very good education journalist, and although I do not know him personally, I am confident he is also a good person with good intentions.

I also want to note that I have been confronting for some time now “bad journalism,” but I have never once accused anyone of being a “bad journalist”—attacking the person.

Yet, one of the most prominent aspects of “bad journalism” has in fact been a relentless and often careless narrative about “bad teachers” (the people, the professionals) and not “bad teaching.”

So, as I have argued before, the problem at the core of bad education journalism is ironically that many journalists covering education are good journalists—taking the “objective” pose and refusing to evaluate the credibility of the “both sides” approach to journalism.

For me to confront “bad journalism” (the act and not the people) for demonizing people and a profession, “bad teachers,” is my own effort not to make the same mistake I am challenging.

Sawchuk’s recent blog post, then, I am certain feeds into the “bad teacher” narrative; I also cannot believe he doesn’t realize that.

I think as well it is telling that he had my blog post link, but chose to make a fairly nasty and provably inaccurate swipe at my intentions—to discredit me and not address my argument (thus, personal); and then when was given ample evidence, chose again not to address his actions, but instead accused me , a second time, of something I did not do.

My blog and most of my public work is searchable online. I have been confronting “bad journalism,” but I have not attacked “bad journalists.”

Virtually every mainstream journalist, however, has run with the “bad teacher” narrative.

I am struck by that important distinction, and regret that journalists covering education believe that they have the right to criticize teachers (often without any background in teaching), but are offended when their own journalism is exposed for failing to provide credible investigations of much needed reforms in pubic education as well as our broader society.

Nonetheless, I am sorry Sawchuk read my post as a personal attack, and I regret that his option to respond to that misinterpretation has been to misrepresent my own intentions and public positions on the complicated ways we must address teacher quality.

See Also

My Open Letter to Journalists: A Critical Free Press, pt. 2

On Professionalism and Good Intentions: More on Education and Journalism

Coda

Last night, I watched a segment on the CBS Evening News covering the Zika outbreak in Florida.

What struck me about the coverage is that the report included Dr. Walter Tabachnick, an expert on infectious diseases, and in a follow up story, the reporter is a doctor, Dr. Jon LaPook. That second story also uses a doctor and researcher, experts on transfusions, as the primary sources.

I must emphasize that no business leader or CEO, no think tank leader, and no members of Doctors for America were included in the coverage.

Beware Educational Alphabet: ADHD, RSD, ASD, OSD, EAA

What do a medical diagnosis and education reform have in common?

Two things: (1) complex matters reduced to a few letters, and (2) failing children.

First, consider ADHD. Below are some readings to help interrogate how this diagnosis has many significant problems, misdiagnosis and over-diagnosis among them, some of which are related to the high-stakes accountability movement in education:

Next, a growing list of alphabet (toxic) soup is assaulting our schools and students under the umbrella of “state takeover” approaches, targeting mostly high-poverty and racial minority schools.

RSD, ASD, OSD, and EAA—among others—have gained political momentum built on propaganda and not results. Below is a reader addressing the failures of state takeover plans for schools:

Finally, misdiagnosing and over-diagnosing ADHD along with partisan-political state takeovers of schools are targeting and hurting vulnerable populations of students—students who need the most support to overcome the obstacles of their lives not of their own making.

Edu-Journalists Know Only Two Stories (And They Are Both Wrong)

This post is mainly a public service because it has become stunningly clear that trying to engage journalists and the media covering education in order to prompt change is falling on willfully deaf ears.

My public service is to save you, dear reader, time. If you see or view a story in the media covering education, you can expect only two frames: (1) If the coverage is about public schools, the message is CRISIS!, but (2) if the coverage is about someone (anyone) without expertise or experience in education, the message will be breathless awe at their courage to finally be dragging that miracle to life that the horrible public school system has been unable to do lo these many years.

Sal Khan? Wow:

As we’ve reported, students anywhere now can get free SAT test prep both online and in person at some Boys & Girls Clubs of America. The move may help level the playing field by improving test prep for less-affluent students to get them ready for the newly revamped SAT, which remains a pillar of college admissions despite the growth in 2015 in “test optional” schools.

It’s part of what Khan Academy calls its core duty to help provide “a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.”

Teach For America? No way!:

In Teach For America lingo, that would be called a hook, a compelling way to think about a concept so that it’ll stick in students’ minds….

Those concerns are reflective of the new tack toward preparation taken by TFA’s Dallas-Fort Worth region, which is trying to move away from teacher-directed instruction in favor of techniques that focus more on students drawing conclusions on their own.

And rather than giving its new corps members a crash course on lesson planning, typically the first step in the TFA’s summer training, the Dallas region supplied its recruits with 700 ready-made lessons, focusing instead on giving candidates feedback on the finer points of carrying off a lesson well.

But what about that pesky skill reading that no one has really figured out—or possibly has never even tried to figure out?

Don’t fret! Buy psychologist Daniel Willingham’s new book!

Or (thank goodness another book to buy!):

About five years ago, the chief executive officer of the Uncommon Schools charter network offered up a lofty charge during a routine staff meeting: “Figure out” reading instruction.

OK, since I said at the outset I was planning to save you time, I’ll stop here, but rest assured, I could do this for hours because the list of (wow!) edu-saviors with almost no or often no experience or expertise in education who are heralded by the media as if the field doesn’t already exist but (again, thank goodness!) these innovative types are here to save the day is almost endless itself: Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, KIPP founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin [1], and those already noted above.

Search those names and the pattern is the same: Fair-and-balanced edu-journalists open with breathless amazement at brave Edu-Genuis X and then later notes the person or the program has “received some criticism” (without nary a nod toward whether or not Edu-Genius X is credible, without nary a nod toward whether or not the criticism is credible—because, hey, that’s not a journalist’s job, right?).

We are left then with two related but wrong edu-journalist approaches to education reporting: public education is (and always has been) in crisis; therefore, the only people we can count on to save us is someone (anyone) outside of education.

However, the real story is much more complicated.

Much needs to be reformed in public schooling in the U.S.—much that has been historical failures.

But those problems are more about the structural wall of bureaucracy that has always existed and is even thicker today between the rich and powerful research and expertise in education as a field and practice, and the ability of teachers to implement their profession.

“A brief consideration,” LaBrant wrote in 1947, “will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.”

LaBrant’s claim remains today, and has been documented specifically about how middle and high school students are bing taught writing. Applebee and Langer discovered:

Overall, in comparison to the 1979–80 study, students in our study were writing more in all subjects, but that writing tended to be short and often did not provide students with opportunities to use composing as a way to think through the issues, to show the depth or breadth of their knowledge, or to make new connections or raise new issues…. The responses make it clear that relatively little writing was required even in English….[W]riting on average mattered less than multiple-choice or short-answer questions in assessing performance in English…. Some teachers and administrators, in fact, were quite explicit about aligning their own testing with the high-stakes exams their students would face. (pp. 15-17)

Applebee and Langer emphasize that the negative consequences of high-stakes testing distinguish this study from their earlier work and that accountability has essentially stymied the influence of writing research, professional organizations, and teacher professionalism.

In other words, teachers today know more about teaching writing and have a more robust research base on what works in teaching writing but are unable to implement that knowledge base because of the accountability bureaucracy that has supplanted teacher professionalism.

Also damning is that this negative dynamic is even more pronounced for our most vulnerable students:

By far the greatest difference between the high poverty and lower poverty schools we studied stemmed from the importance that teachers placed and administrators placed on high-stakes tests that students faced. In the higher poverty schools, fully 83% of teachers across subject areas reported state exams were important in shaping curriculum and instruction, compared with 64% of their colleagues in lower poverty schools. (Applebee & Langer, 2013, p. 149)

And their is a truly ugly irony to this mess: Political leadership and edu-preneurs (remember, buy the book and program!) are chanting “college and career ready” while pushing mainstream education that guarantees students lack the rich and complex behaviors that would serve them well in higher education, their careers, and (god forbid) their lives. As noted above (and writing as someone who teaches first-year writing at the university level), students are being denied writing instruction they need and deserve because of accountability (except for privileged students at private schools that are not shackled by the mandates of politicians who send their children to those private schools).

So, I know this isn’t the stuff of breathless awe and fair-and-balanced journalism, but the reality is that we are failing the profession of education, the research of the field of education, public education as a great democratic experiment, our children, and our country. But the solution to that huge set of problems is to tear down the bureaucratic wall of accountability and rebuild public schools with the leadership of educators.

[1] See this excellent examination of KIPP and the clueless media coverage of education “hot shot” experiments by know-nothing edu-preneurs:

For Russo to ignore the uneven outcomes of KIPP schools as a possible reason for their recent lack of attention is odd, but not surprising as reform cheerleaders are often blind to any objective evidence that does not support their narrative.

 

The State: South Carolina should focus on education opportunity, not accountability

The State: South Carolina should focus on education opportunity, not accountability

[original unedited submission below]

Former Governor and Secretary of Education Richard Riley established South Carolina as one of the first states to move education reform to the top of any state’s agenda. That journey for our state is now three decades-plus old, and political leaders, the media, and the public remain unsatisfied with our public schools.

With the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era behind us and the newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) now returning a great deal of power to states for school reform, The State has called for SC to recommit to accountability, warning: “[R]emoving that oversight provides a tremendous temptation for states to lower the bar. We must not let that happen in South Carolina.”

My entire 34 years as an educator in SC has been during the accountability era in which the state has changed standards and high-stakes tests five or six times each. While I agree with The State’s editorial that the transition from NCLB to ESSA is a great opportunity, I caution about doubling down on accountability.

First, SC political leaders, the media, and the public must finally confront that our public schools are a reflection of the tremendous burden of poverty on children and families in our state. The schools along the Corridor of Shame (the I-95 corridor) as well as other pockets of high poverty across the state present us with a very disturbing lesson that school reform alone has never worked, and will likely never work.

Across the U.S., in fact, accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing has failed in both fifty different experiments and the more recent national effort with Common Core. The quality or even presence of standards and high-stakes tests has never produced higher student achievement or closed the so-called achievement gap between wealthy and poor students or racial minorities and whites.

The greatest education challenge, then, facing our state is addressing poverty and racism in our society so that education reform has a chance to succeed. Without adopting policy that deals directly with stable jobs with adequate pay and benefits, healthcare, childcare, and an equitable criminal justice system, our schools are destined to continue to struggle.

Next, we need to reconsider entirely education reform—not based on accountability but on equity of opportunity.

Labeling and ranking our schools—whether we use more than test scores or not—has been harmful, and it is past time to consider another process. As Bruce Baker, Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, and researcher Gerald Bracey have argued often, educational rankings tend to reveal more about conditions outside of the school’s control than about the quality of education. Overwhelmingly in all types of educational rankings the greatest predictor of high or low rankings is wealth or poverty.

However, The State actually hits on a better alternative: “But the focus must remain on the core function of the schools: providing all children in this state the opportunity to receive a decent education, of the sort that will allow them to become self-supporting, productive, taxpaying citizens.”

Equity of opportunity must replace accountability in SC—although this doesn’t mean lowering expectations or absolving schools or teachers from their responsibilities to students and the state.

What I propose is transparency about the opportunities to learn that all students are receiving in the context of social programs that help every student enter the doors of those schools on much more equal footing than they have historically or currently.

Those equitable opportunities must include for all students access to experienced and certified teachers, open door policies for challenging courses and programs (such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate), and equitably funded schools and facilities across the state. As well, we must end inequitable disciplinary policies and outcomes, tracking, and harmful current policies such as third-grade retention based on reading scores.

But grading and ranking schools must end as well.

A hard reality of teaching is that we can never guarantee outcomes; students ultimately, if given the conditions in their lives and schools to succeed, are responsible for learning. Schools and teachers are responsible for making that learning possible.

Accountability has not worked for thirty-plus years. The hard question now is: Have the adults learned that lesson and are they prepared to try something different?

See Also

Addressing Teacher Quality Post-NCLB

More Lessons on the Journalist/ Educator Divide

During my recent round of confronting the failures of mainstream media and journalists covering US public education (see here, here, and here), I have had some of my worst fears confirmed, but have also discovered a few new lessons.

I was disappointed to read some Tweets that suggested that the reason journalists do not include more (or usually any) teacher voices is the fault of educators: teachers not willing to go on record, teachers failing to meet the journalist’s deadline.

This deflecting of professional responsibility and blame prove my central point that journalists simply do not understand education well enough to cover it adequately or fairly.

K-12 public school teachers are increasingly losing any semblance of job security—one aspect of which is the traditional charge that teachers not be political, not be advocates in the public realm. Journalists must have a greater sense of awareness and compassion for those conditions, and then seek ways to make it possible for teachers to be a major part of the public discussion about education.

An alternative, however, that I often present is that there is no absence of professors and researchers who are able to speak publicly while also having a much higher level of expertise in the many topics around education than think tank leaders, elected officials, political appointees, billionaire edu-hobbyists, and self-proclaimed edu-reformers and edu-leaders.

Another lesson involves the sheer complexity of educational problems and educational research (see here). Journalists are drawn to presenting complex issues in accessible ways for a lay audience (a legitimate concern), but what has happened in the coverage of education is that journalists overwhelmingly are using sources who start with the simplistic and oversimplified (“education is the great equalizer” [untrue], “teacher quality is the most important factor in student success” [untrue], “public education is in crisis” [untrue], “poverty is not an excuse” [baldfaced ugly assertion]) that significantly distort both the problems in education and the solutions.

As well, as I have documented often, journalists are prone to reporting uncritically on aggressively promoted reports (typically form think tanks, but increasingly from departments in universities funded by billionaire edu-reformers) that have not yet been vetted by the peer-review process; and then fail to follow up when reviews often find many flaws with the reports and their claims.

However, I have also had a couple encouraging experiences.

One journalist emailed me with a wonderfully positive and self-reflective response to my work. If there is one journalist who takes the time to consider authentically these concerns, I feel optimistic there are more.

As well, I have recently viewed a brief documentary by Lena Jackson, whose Crenshaw is an outstanding examination of education, Day in the Life – Gustavo Lopez, MA & Credential Urban Education & Social Justice:

I am left after viewing this work convinced that fore-fronting teachers’ voices is not only important, but possible—if the will to examine education is sincere and critical.

I am currently skeptical that many journalists covering education are either sincere or critical.

“Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.”

I wish that people who are conventionally supposed to love each other would say to each other, when they fight, “Please—a little less love, and a little more common decency.”

Slapstick or Lonesome No More!, Kurt Vonnegut

I was a public high school English teacher for almost two decades in the rural upstate of South Carolina.

My first years were nearly overwhelming—as they are for most beginning teachers. And I would concede that much of that struggling could easily be categorized as classroom management challenges (although having five different preps, 15 different textbooks, and classes as large as 35 students certainly didn’t help).

Yet, then and now, as I approach the middle of my third decade teaching, I tend to reject the terms “discipline” and “classroom management” because they carry connotations I cannot endorse.

First, framing classroom management as something separate from pedagogy, I believe, is a mistake. In other words, effective and engaging pedagogy creates the environment that renders so-called (and generic) classroom management strategies unnecessary.

Next, most claims about “discipline” and “classroom management” remain trapped in reductive behavioristic ideology as well as authoritarian views of the teacher (in which authority is linked by default to the position).

As a critical educator, I seek to be authoritative, not authoritarian (see Paulo Freire). In other words, I forefront the human dignity and agency of my students, I seek always to model the person and learner I feel my students should emulate, and I work diligently to earn the respect of my students, in part, because of my expertise and credibility in terms of what content I am teaching.

But having taught public school, I know the real world is messy: students become confrontational with their peers and even teachers. School can be (and in some places often is) a physically and psychologically dangerous and uncomfortable place, rendering learning less important.

And I also recognize that each teacher is legally and morally the central figure of authority in any classroom. Yes, as a teacher, I must assert that authority any time the safety, health, or opportunity to learn of any students is threatened.

So when I am teaching pre-service teacher candidates, I urge them to take certain steps in their day-to-day interactions with students as well as in confrontational events.

I urge them always to speak to students with “please” and “thank you.” I stress that whenever students become loud, belligerent, or threatening, the teacher must lower her/his voice, mediate her/his language, increase her/his patience, and seek ways to give the student space and time in order to protect all innocent students and the upset student.

I say “yes, sir” and “no ma’am” to students because my father raised me that way. However, my father’s own authoritarian style (“do as I say, not as I do”) also imprinted on me my fear of hypocrisy; therefore, I seek always to have higher standards for my own behavior than for the behavior of my students.

All of that—and more—is to say that when I read A ‘No-Nonsense’ Classroom Where Teachers Don’t Say ‘Please’ I was horrified because of both the abusive treatment of children and the (not surprising) cavalier endorsement by NPR.

The problems are almost too numerous to list, but I’ll try.

First, the so-called “unique teaching method”—”no-nonsense nurturing”—is a program (from “Center for Transformative Teacher Training, an education consulting company based in San Francisco”), and thus, NPR’s reporting proves to be little more than a PR campaign for that company.

Next, these harsh and dehumanizing methods are yet more of the larger “no excuses” ideology that targets primarily children in poverty and black/brown children. In other words, there is a general willingness to endorse authoritarian methods as long as the children are “other people’s children”—code for the poor and racial minorities.

And then, related, the direct justification for that authoritarianism is that parents choose this for their children.

Here, I want to stress again what I have examined before (see here and here):

  • Be skeptical of idealizing parental choice. Parents can and do make horrible choices for their children, and children should not be condemned only to the coincidences of their births.
  • Many scholars have addressed the self-defeating choices within racial minority communities that stem from unhealthy dynamics related to being a marginalized and oppressed people; see Michelle Alexander on black neighborhoods calling for greater police presence and Stacy Patton (here and here) on blacks disproportionately embracing corporal punishment. I have applied that same dynamic to blacks choosing “no excuses” charter schools.

While the NPR article notes that these practices “[make] some education specialists uncomfortable,” I must note this is not about being “uncomfortable.”

These practices are not providing “structure,” but are dehumanizing.

As well, these practices are racist and classist, and ultimately abusive. Period.

Our vulnerable populations of students already have unfair and harsh lives outside of school. Doubling down on indignity during the school day is not the answer.

If we cannot change the world (and I suspect we can’t), we can provide all children the sorts of environments all children deserve in their school day—environments of kindness, compassion, safety, and challenges.

To paraphrase Vonnegut, then, Please—a little less “no nonsense,” and a little more common decency.

See Also

If you’re a teacher, say “please” and “thank you,” Ray Salazar

Schools, black children, and corporal punishment

figure-1

What Football Reveals for Education about False Allure of Quantification

If you want to understand the inherent complexity of professional football, you may want to start with a person with a long and rich career in the sport. For example, consider “Super Bowl-winning former Ravens coach Brian Billick” responding to the rise of metrics and statistics in the NFL:

“One of the most common questions I get is, Can you do Moneyball, for lack of a better term, in the NFL? And the answer is, No, you can’t,” Billick said. “You can’t quantify the game of football the way you do baseball. It’s not a statistical game. The parameters of the game, the number of bodies and what they’re doing in conjunction with one another.”

The collaborative and human (although not humane) elements of football, it appears, render the power of statistics less predictive—and less useful—in the sport than in baseball.

One lesson, then, seems to be that statistics are not universally valid and predictive, particularly in contexts that are highly complex.

I am reminded of the post-Katrina analysis of the pre-landfall models for the massive hurricane. That image of hundreds of models was a nightmare of confusion, lending little in valuable predictive information for anyone.

The post-Katrina data on just what did occur, however, were fascinating and powerful.

Since the U.S. cares more about the NFL than public education, Billick’s skepticism and warnings are likely to be better heeded than decades of similar warnings from teachers about the rise of measurable data (mostly high-stakes test scores) in evaluating students, teachers, and schools.

In education, the tug-of-war continues, and I fear, those of us siding wth Billick in the context of education are not fairing well.

See this report advocating more metrics in teacher quality pursuits, Smart, Skilled, and Striving: Transforming and Elevating the Teaching Profession, and then a review, mostly discrediting the report as the abstract notes:

This report from the Center for American Progress offers 10 recommendations for improving the public perceptions of and experiences of classroom teachers. While elements of these recommendations would likely be beneficial, they also include policy changes that would increase surveillance of teachers, reduce teachers’ job security, evaluate teachers by students’ test scores, and create merit pay systems that would likely have the opposite effect. For evidence, the report relies too heavily on popular rhetoric, sound bites, opinion articles, and advocacy publications to advance a policy agenda that in many ways could do further harm to the teaching profession. However, many of the report’s recommendations do align with policy reforms currently being proposed for the Higher Education Act and included in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorizations and are therefore important to read critically and consider carefully. In advancing evaluation of teachers by test scores, the report goes against the cautions and guidelines recently released by the American Statistical Association and the American Educational Research Association. Other than a review of contemporary issues, the report offers little of substance to advance the teaching profession.

Let’s hold our collective breaths about which will win out. Any predictions?

Dear Journalists Covering Education, Let Me Explain

In my Twitter timeline, I saw a post praising a recent New York Times article on graduation rates and the devalued high school diploma. Since I had written a blog criticizing the many (and typical) flaws in the piece, I nudged Stephanie Banchero and Nichole Dobo to reconsider.

Dobo was gracious enough to respond [1], but Twitter really doesn’t afford the space to make my case as well as both the topic and Dobo deserve so I want here to lay out better just exactly why so many of us in education are routinely frustrated with how media cover education.

Let me start by reemphasizing why educators have moved from frustrated to exasperated in terms of media coverage of public education.

In the mid-1800s as public schools became a more compelling option for education in the U.S., Catholic schools initiated scathing attacks on public schools—not for educational, but for market reasons.

The history of vilifying public education in the U.S. has replicated that pattern until today—although the negative drumbeat has intensified significantly over the past three decades of high-stakes accountability (which is mostly a political, not an educational, venture).

Therefore, most political and media commentary on public education is misguided. Yes, most.

The problem for educators is not that public education is without flaws and is being unfairly demonized, but that we in the U.S. have mostly failed public education (and our students, and our country) by continuing to wallow in false narratives while ignoring the very real problems in both our education system and society that warrant reform.

My argument is that since most political leaders and political appointees governing education as well as most journalists covering education are without educational experience or expertise, these compelling but false narratives are simply recycled endlessly, digging the hole deeper and deeper.

Compounding that problem is the overwhelming evidence that journalists covering education disproportionately turn to people outside the field of education as their sources [2].

Think tank advocacy masquerading as research (rarely peer-reviewed) garners sensational headlines [3] while psychologists, economists, and political scientists are quoted about every aspect of education.

And on the rare occasion that I am interviewed by a journalist, I can predict what will happen: the journalist is always stunned by what I offer, typically challenging evidence-based claims because they go against the compelling but false narratives.

No, there is no positive correlation between educational quality and any country’s economy.

No, teacher quality is actually dwarfed by out-of-school factors in terms of student achievement.

No, charter and private schools are not superior to public schools.

No, school choice has not worked, except to re-segregate schools.

No, merit pay does not work, and is something teachers do not want. Teachers are far more concerned about their autonomy and working conditions.

No, standards do not work—never have—and high-stakes testing is mostly a reflection of children’s lives, not their teachers or their schools.

This list could go on, but I think I have made my point.

Now let me offer what I think is possibly the best example of the problem—reporting of the SAT.

For decades, the College Board reported SAT scores, ranking states by their average score. The media participated then in the annual bashing of schools based on those rankings.

Eventually, the College Board conceded that such rankings are deeply flawed since among the states, the percentages of students taking the test make those comparisons/rankings invalid—and the SAT is not designed to measure the quality of schools in a state (the SAT is designed only to predict first year college success and does so slightly worse that GPA).

Thus, the College Board issued a notice [4] and began releasing state SAT scores alphabetically. However, the media persist in the bashing.

Another problem with journalists covering education is a journalism problem: seeking to address “both sides” of issues in order to appear fair and balanced.

Therefore, I have invoked the Oliver Rule because that practice too often is not being objective and mostly distorts (as John Oliver brilliantly exposes about climate change) the real balance between the credible and the baseless.

Some, possibly many, issues simply do not have two sides, and often within fields—while there remains debate—issues have such an overwhelming body of evidence supporting a stance that posing the topic as “debatable” is terribly flawed. Framing an issue with someone who is credible and someone who is not fails reporting and the public.

For example, I struggled with the media about corporal punishment recently because the topic simply has only one side (corporal punishment is overwhelmingly harmful), yet every journalist sought both sides for the reporting. This was replicated when I addressed grade retention as well.

Since the U.S. suffers under the delusion that mainstream media is liberal (it isn’t), I must stress that even the so-called liberal New York Times, NPR, and even Education Week are more apt to misrepresent education than swim against the compelling but false narratives.

As I have examined (and had reaffirmed with NPR once again covering Sal Khan as if he is a credible educator in recent days), NPR follows the patterns I have detailed above when covering “grit.”

Where education journalism thrives is in the New Media (blogging) and alternative media (AlterNet, Truthout, The Conversation). In fact, note that Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet (a blog at the Washington Post) is far superior to the print education reporter Jay Mathews, who works within the false narratives about education.

So to return to Dobo’s engaging with me about my concerns.

Dobo and I share something important: we want to defend our professions because they both matter mightily. On that, I agree with Dobo and respect her integrity and her field.

To her challenges to my claims, I want to clarify that, yes, I do believe education journalism would be greatly improved if journalists covering education had expertise and experience in the field.

I have been a coach, and also believe coaches are better when they have played the game they are coaching.

But, my main contention is that currently and historically almost all the politicians governing education, pundits pontificating on education, and journalists covering education have little or no experience or expertise in the field.

My modest proposal is that most should—but certainly not all.

And then, more directly, I also must stress that the real problem with education journalism is that the sources of education coverage in the media are the same talking heads without experience or expertise—think tank leaders, edupreneurs, education hobbyists (mostly millionaires and billionaires), anyone except educators.

Few people are more critical of my field of education than I am so my real concern is that journalism is failing the real reform needed in schools because of the experience and expertise vacuum in the media covering education.

Education needs a critical media, journalists who resist the false but compelling crisis narratives being recycled by politicians.

It is well past time, I think, for everyone who wants to understand education to try asking a teacher. And then listening when what we explain goes against conventional wisdom.

See Also

Is It Journalism, or Just a Repackaged Press Release? Here’s a Tool to Help You Find Out, Rebecca J. Rosen

[1] The conversation, in part, included:

Dobo Twitter 1

Dobo Twitter 2

[2] See Educational Expertise, Advocacy, and Media Influence, Joel R. Malin and Christopher Lubienski; The Research that Reaches the Public: Who Produces the Educational Research Mentioned in the News Media?, Holly Yettick; The Media and Educational Research: What We Know vs. What the Public Hears, Alex Molnar. And REPORT: Only 9 Percent Of Guests Discussing Education On Evening Cable News Were Educators:

cable-education-overall

[3] Consider this press release from the Center for American Progress (CAP), with prompting at the end to talk with their experts, and this review, discrediting the report praised in the press release. The CAP report speaks to the false narratives, and thus, is poised to resonate with political leaders and the media—while the review is likely to garner little attention.

[4] The College Board warns: “Educators, the media and others…[s]hould not rank or rate teachers, educational institutions, districts or states solely on the basis of aggregate scores derived from tests that are intended primarily as a measure of individual students.”

Students, Not Standards: Calling for Solidarity in 2016

Many years ago, I was sitting in the last class session of the capstone secondary ELA methods course as part of my M.Ed. The guest speaker that day was my high school English teacher, the man responsible for my primary career path, Lynn Harrill.

Lynn was friends with the professor, who was then working at the state department of education, I believe.

Toward the end of the class, the professor asked what we wanted our students to know when they left our classes. That question was followed by lingering silence.

Ever the eager student, I said, “I want them to know themselves,” and I caught a glimpse of Lynn smiling widely.

Of course, that is what Lynn had taught me, although most people probably assumed it was reading and writing Lynn had so expertly given his students (which, by the way, was also true).

This moment—one of a very idealistic and naive young teacher, me—comes back to me often, and despite my many failures as a teacher, that grounding goal has always guided me. Not to be simplistic, but I teach students—that’s why I teach.

While reading Four Stories That Homework Tells Children About School, Learning, & Life, I was struck by “STORY #3: School Is More Important Than Other Pursuits/Interests/Activities.”

And now I have to investigate that memory again.

Yes, Lynn Harrill changed my life by being my sophomore and junior English teacher in high school. He was gracious, kind, and encouraging to a deeply insecure and anxious teen (me) who had decided he was a math and science person—because that is what school had told me.

Junior high English classes had been mostly draconian English teachers, grammar book exercises, and diagramming sentences. The “English” content of those classes was easy (I made As), but I loathed it all, even the texts we were assigned to read (much of which we did not read).

Now, before I launch into whining, let me be clear that my story is about how school failed me—but that because of my tremendous privilege (white, male and—according to traditional schooling and standardized tests—high verbal and mathematical intelligence), the consequences of those failures were miniscule. I attended college and continued to make As (easily), leading to an MEd and EdD.

I share this, then, not to bemoan poor pitiful me (or to brag), but to highlight that schools often fail students in ways we do not acknowledge and that the consequences for those students who need schooling most are monumental.

While I was begrudgingly playing school and succeeding, at home I was engaged in a rich array of hobbies and interests that school not only ignored, but also indirectly refuted (even Lynn told me as a 10th grader I needed to stop reading science fiction [SF] and start reading real literature such as Fitzgerald).

I was collecting, reading, and drawing from thousands of Marvel comic books. I was voraciously listening to popular music and studying the lyrics. And I was doing the same with comedy albums, mostly George Carlin and Richard Pryor.

My reading life, as I noted above, was Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Arthur C. Clarke, and whatever works were prompted by my mother’s SF film fascination. I fell in love with The Andromeda Strain because of the film, and much of my formative life was driven by the five Planet of the Apes films and TV’s Star Trek.

My response to the real literature endorsed by Lynn was tepid (but always the mama’s boy, I did as teachers told me to do), but my life was irrevocably changed when he also recommended writers I would never be assigned in the rural South of the 1970s—notably D.H. Lawrence.

Well, damn, I thought. This is literature?

My journey from student to teacher began in my sophomore year of high school as I began to untangle the false narratives school had taught me and came to embrace the authentic narratives of my real life, my real Self, outside of school.

More than a decade into my teaching career (in the position Lynn left at my high school) and in the same doctoral program Lynn had completed, I finally discovered critical pedagogy as the complete vision of student-centered teaching and learning I had been haphazardly practicing.

Regretfully, my entire career as an educator (18 years as a high school ELA teacher and then 14 more years, and counting, as an English educator and first-year writing professor) has occurred under the antithesis of student-centered critical education—the high-stakes accountability movement.

All of which, ironically, I have been prepared for by the very reading material school marginalized, science fiction and dystopian fiction.

Standards, high-stakes tests, and accountability fail students, fail teachers. They conspire to do exactly what homework accomplishes in story #3 above.

I cannot step away form this: I must teach those students placed in my care, and that duty requires me to find out who they are, what they know, and what they want so that we can work together so that they find who they are and who they want to be.

So, I wonder with the new year, and the allure of resolutions—who is with me in 2016? Can we make this about students and not standards, not tests?

See Also

Doubling Down (Again) by Reverting, Not Changing: The Exponential Failures of Education Legislation

Teacher Quality, Wiggins and Hattie: More Doing the Wrong Things the Right Ways

More on Evidence-Based Practice: The Tyranny of Technocrats

Beware the Technocrats: More on the Reading Wars

I Don’t Need Standards To Teach, I Need Students

Are Common Core and Testing Debates “Two Different Matters”?

Mainstream Media in (Perpetual) Crisis: More Education Meat Grinder

“‘Only four out of ten U.S. children finish high school, only one out of five who finish high school goes to college’”: This spells doom for the U.S. economy, or to be more accurate, this spelled doom for the U.S. economy.

Except it didn’t, of course, as it is a quote in a 1947 issue of Time from John Ward Studebaker, a former school superintendent who served as U.S. Commissioner of Education (analogous to today’s Secretary of Education) in the mid-1940s.

Jump forward to 26 December 2015 and The New York TimesAs Graduation Rates Rise, Experts Fear Diplomas Come Up Short. Motoko Rich, as in the Time article, builds her case on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, as Susan Ohanian confronts:

Here’s a front page. above-the-fold New York Times non-story that’s a perfect depiction of damning schools every-which-way. Schools with low graduation rates are depicted as failures; improve graduation rates, and then the diplomas they’re handing out are judged to have no meaning. And the Times gives the departing Secretary of Education star billing on this issue.

Quotation of the Day
The goal is not just high school graduation. The goal is being truly college and career ready.

–ARNE DUNCAN, the departing secretary of
education, on the United States 82 percent graduation rate in 2013-14, the highest on record.–New York Times, Dec. 27, 2015

Along with the meat grinder of incessantly new high-stakes accountability standards and testing over the past thirty-plus years, U.S. public education has been demonized since the mid-1900s and relentlessly framed within crisis discourse by the mainstream media for a century.

Rich’s cover piece spends an inordinate amount of energy to twist public schools into that crisis image while making no effort to investigate or challenge Duncan (a life-long appointee with no expertise in education and no credibility as a leader in education) or to unpack the stale platitudes and unsubstantiated claims about education reaching back at least to the Time article.

Duncan and Rich share, in fact, no experience or education in teaching as well as the disproportionate power of their voices in the field despite that lack of expertise.

On the other hand, I taught public high school English in rural South Carolina (not far from the school Rich highlights), have been an educator in SC over 30 years total, have a doctorate in education that emphasized the history of the field, and now am a teacher educator at a university just a couple miles from the school in Rich’s piece (I know teachers there, and have had several teacher candidates placed there for field work). As well, I taught journalism and was the faculty sponsor of the school newspaper, and have been a professional writer for about the same amount of time as I have been teaching, including writing and publishing a good deal of journalism (mostly about education).

This is not, however, an attack on Duncan or Rich—because they are not unique but typical of the mismatch of high-level voice with a lack of expertise.

Mainstream media appear fatally wed to only one version of the U.S. public education story: crisis.

And thus, journalists reach out to the same know-nothings (political leaders, political appointees, think-tank talking heads) and reproduce the same stories over and over and over [1].

Here, then, let me offer a few keys to moving beyond the reductive crisis-meme-as-education-journalism:

  • Public education has never been and is not now in crisis. “Crisis” is the wrong metaphor for entrenched patterns that have existed over a century. A jet plane crash landing into the Hudson River is a crisis; public education suffers under forces far more complicated than a crisis.
  • Metrics such as highs-takes test scores and graduation rates have always and currently tell us more about the conditions of children’s lives than to what degree public schools are effective.
  • Short-hand terms such as “college and career ready” and “grade-level reading” are little more than hokum; they are the inadequate verbal versions of the metrics noted above.
  • The nebulous relationship between the quality of education in the U.S. and the fragility of the U.S. economy simply has never existed. Throughout the past century, no one has ever found any direct or clear positive correlation between measures of educational quality in the U.S. and the strength of the U.S. economy.
  • Yes, racial and class segregation is on the rise in the U.S., and so-called majority-minority schools as well as high-poverty schools are quickly becoming the norm of public education. While demographics of race and class remain strongly correlated with the metrics we use to label schools as failing, the problem lies in the data (high-stakes tests remain race, class, and gender biased), not necessarily the students, teachers, or administrators.
  • However, historically and currently, public education’s great failures are two-fold: (1) public schools reflect the staggering social inequities of the U.S. culture, and (2) public schools too often perpetuate those same inequities (for example, tracking and disciplinary policies).

The mainstream media’s meat grinder of crisis-only reporting on public education achieves some extremely powerful and corrosive consequences.

First, the public remains grossly misinformed about public schools as a foundational institution in a democracy.

Next, that misleading and inaccurate crisis narrative fuels the political myopia behind remaining within the same education policy paradigm that has never addressed the real problems and never achieved the promises attached to each new policy (see from NCLB to ESSA).

And finally, this fact remains: Political and public will in the U.S. has failed public education; it has not failed us.

Mainstream media remain trapped in the education crisis narrative, I think, because neither the media nor the collective political/public consciousness is willing to confront some really ugly truths beneath the cultural commitment to the powerful and flawed rugged individual mythology in the U.S.: America is a classist, racist, and sexist society.

We are committed to allowing privilege beget privilege and to pretending that fruits of privilege are the result of effort and merit.

There is no crisis in education, but our democracy is being held hostage by incompetent politicians and a compliant mainstream media—all of which, ironically, would be served well by the sort of universal public education envisioned by the tarnished founding fathers’ idealistic (and hypocritical) rhetoric [2].

[1] See Educational Expertise, Advocacy, and Media Influence, Joel R. Malin and Christopher Lubienski; The Research that Reaches the Public: Who Produces the Educational Research Mentioned in the News Media?, Holly Yettick; The Media and Educational Research: What We Know vs. What the Public Hears, Alex Molnar

[2] See Thomas Jefferson’s argument for a democracy embracing education:

The object [of my education bill was] to bring into action that mass of talents which lies buried in poverty in every country for want of the means of development, and thus give activity to a mass of mind which in proportion to our population shall be the double or treble of what it is in most countries. ([1817], pp. 275-276)

The less wealthy people, . .by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen. (p. 50)

To all of which is added a selection from the elementary schools of subjects of the most promising genius, whose parents are too poor to give them further education, to be carried at the public expense through the colleges and university.  (p. 275)

By that part of our plan which prescribes the selection of the youths of genius from among the classes of the Poor, we hope to avail the State of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated. But of all the views of this law none is more important none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty. (p. 276)

The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance. (p. 278)